Topline: TikTok has been forced to apologize for suspending a teenager who shared videos highlighting human rights abuses in China at a time when U.S. politicians have called for a review of Chinese tech firm ByteDance’s ownership of the hit app over security and censorship concerns.
- On November 23, TikTok user Feroza Aziz posted a viral video disguised as a beauty tutorial in which she discussed alleged human rights abuses by Chinese authorities towards Uighur Muslims.
- But the video was removed from the Chinese-owned platform for exactly 50 minutes on Wednesday. In a statement, TikTok apologized and blamed the move on a “human moderation error.”
- This is not the first time TikTok has clashed with the 17-year-old. On Monday, Aziz joined Twitter to say that she had been suspended from TikTok for a month for “multiple violations” of the platform’s community guidelines
- Here is what TikTok claims happened: Aziz, who has had more than one TikTok account, had her first account (getmefamousplzsir) suspended on November 14 after she posted a satirical video containing an image of Osama Bin Laden. TikTok says that the video violated its guidelines on terrorism-related imagery.
- That same day, the New Jersey teenager went on to create a second TikTok account (getmefamouspartthree) on the same smartphone she used to create the first account. It was on this account that she posted the video criticizing China.
- On November 25, TikTok says it enforced a device ban on more than 2,000 devices linked to accounts that breached its guidelines, and they say that Aziz’s phone was swept up in the crackdown due to her earlier account ban. The move left Aziz locked out of her new account, but the account remained active.
- TikTok’s controversial handling of the video, and suspension of Aziz’s accounts and device, have heightened concerns about how the platform is moderated, with Aziz calling the company’s moves “suspicious.”
- TikTok apologized and said in a statement that they have overridden the device ban in the case of Aziz. The company insisted that the deletion of the video was a human error and that the clip was reinstated once the error was discovered. It also published a timeline of events surrounding the controversy, which can be seen here.
- TikTok moderation guidelines leaked to The Guardian in September reveal that staff was ordered to tackle video that address topics sensitive to China like the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet and pro-LGBT content.
Crucial quote: Aziz responded to TikTok’s apology on Twitter: “tik tok [sic] has issued a public apology and gave me my account back. Do I believe they took it away because of a unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? Right after I finished posting a 3 part video about the Uyghurs? No.”
Key background: Aziz’s videos are an example of how the app’s young users are employing creative tactics to discuss pressing social issues. The heavily censored Douyin app, a version of TikTok only available in China, has previously been used by Uighurs to draw attention to family members detained by Chinese authorities.
Aziz and other campaigners are trying to draw attention to China’s policy of mass detention targeting the Uighur and other majority Muslim ethnic groups in China’s far-west region of Xinjiang. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists earlier this month published a trove of leaked Chinese government documents revealing the workings of the high-security camps which could house up to 1 million people.
China has claimed that the camps were set up for voluntary training purposes, but the documents have prompted the UN and U.K. to demand uninterrupted access to the region.
News peg: ByteDance has taken steps to ring fence TikTok from its Chinese operations in a bid to head off being forced by the U.S. government to sell the hit app, according to Reuters. Senator Chuck Schumer has pressed the U.S. government and military to review ByteDance and assess the the risk that it injects Chinese censorship into American social media while having access to sensitive user data.